the Magic, the Mastery, and the Medium of Winter Solstice: Tangyuan 汤圆

by Michaela Wang

In the South of the Yangtze River, the whole family customarily gathers together on the evening of Winter Solstice to go meatless, devouring rice complimented not with stir-fry beef, pork, or chicken, but red bean. According to legend, the son of Gonggong exercised evil practices, and his life ended on the holiday. But death taught him no lesson, as his pestilent spirit persisted as a ghost and continued to harm people. One may think this antagonist feared nothing than the fate of himself, but remind yourself of the superiority complex: most terrifying was the rich color red, satiating the minute kidneys of red beans with blood, reminding him of his own lack of life. In fear of the son’s damage, people packed red bean in rice to ward off the ghost’s finished yet everlasting frivolity.

A chubby ball filled with rich flavor diversifying from red bean to peanut paste, tangyuan is a customary food during the Winter Solstice holiday. In Chinese, “round” means “reunion” and “perfection”, so eating the glutinous rice balls during Winter Solstice is called “winter solstice reunion”. People offer tangyuan to worship ancestors or gift the globes of salivation to relatives and friends, bringing a fulfillment identical to its construction.

During this 2019 Winter Solstice, I decided to venture into the sticky art of glutinous rice flower and peanut paste. While I lacked access to areas of worship, and frankly friends too, any attempt at connecting to this old or new culture fulfills the desire to learn. I’ve acknowledged through the process that it’s not about making the perfect recipe or crafting the most photogenic tang yuan: it’s about wanting to do it, motivation is more than enough.

Let’s take a courageous stab at these innocent, pillowy Winter Solstice staples!

I divided the recipe into four parts: the filling, the dough, the wrapping, and the boil.

You probably won’t need to leave the house for these filling ingredients:

  • Toasted black sesame (80 g)
  • Ground pecan (30 g)
  • Sugar (80 g)
  • Melted fat [lard, butter, or coconut oil] (80 g)
  • Boiling water (30 g)

Follow these simple directions for the filling:

  1. Toast the sesame, but be careful not to overtoast— sesame contains a lot of oil, thus is vulnerable to a bitter taste. We only want to induce the fragrance, so I toasted the sesame on light for one minute.
  2. Let the sesame cool.
  3. Grind the sesame in either a food processors or blender. Set the powder in a medium-sized bowl.
  4. Repeat these steps with pecan: toast, cool, and grind. Combine in the sesame bowl.
  5. Mix in sugar, melted fat, and boiling water to the bowl until the consistency becomes runny. We used boiling water for the following reasons: (1) To reduce the amount of fat but still achieve the gooey, loose consistency. (2) To melt the sugar.
  6. Pour your mixture into a quart-sized Ziplock bag and squeeze out the extra air. Leave in the freezer for 30 minutes.
  7. Take the bag out of the freezer, remove the frozen filling, and cut into 50 (5 cm*10 cm) cubes.
  8. Nestle a cube of now slightly-softened frozen filling between both palms, rolling the cube in a circular movement with your palms until a ball shape forms. The angularity of the cube softens with the padding of your hands. Set the dense balls of filling aside.

Pantry ingredients for the dough:

  • Boiling water (140 g)
  • Room temperature water (70 g)
  • Glutinous rice flour (250 g)

Follow these directions for the dough carefully and confidently. The key mindset is to stray away from over-adding ingredients, which soaks up moisture necessary for a plumper and lighter tangyuan skin.

  1. Place the glutinous rice flour into a large bowl.
  2. Slowly add the boiling water meanwhile mixing with a spatula. The mixture should form into sticky chunks.
  3. Add the room-temperature water.
  4. Knead the dough. If the consistency is too sticky, tab some glutinous rice powder on your palm and envelop it into each knead. Don’t over-add: my grandmother always taught me that you can always add but can’t take away.
  5. Brace your hands– kneading finishes when wet flour stops sticking on your hand or on the walls of the bowl. The dough must mature as if an unstable baby becoming independent.
  6. Form the dough into a smooth ball, place on a tray, and cover the tray with plastic wrap to rest for 30 minutes.
  7. Knead the rested dough a bit more and roll it into a foot-long log.
  8. Divide the log into 3 even sections. Keep one section of the dough and place the other two back under plastic wrap to avoid drying out. Roll the one section into a long skinny log, approximately 1.5 cm in diameter. Divide the skinny log into 12 sections, and roll each section into a 4 cm circle.
Kneaded ball
Divided sections

Now, on to the wrapping. You may be a bit rusty at the beginning, but your fingers will quickly attain the art.

  1. Place a filling ball in the center of the circular dough wrap.
  2. Fold the flour wrap around the filling ball like an envelope that must be well sealed.
  3. Roll it between your palms to form the final tang yuan ball.
Filling ball in dough
Rolled out between palms
Ready to boil

Finally, boiling, which should be one of the easier parts.

  1. Fill a medium pot half-full with water, and bring it to a boil on high flame.
  2. Plop in 10 wrapped glutinous rice balls, stirring gently by occasion. At first, they will sink to the bottom, but when your ping pong balls begin to float up, reduce to medium flame and cook for 3 more minutes.
  3. Turn off the flame.
  4. Dress 3-4 Tang Yuan in a bowl, but I wouldn’t go over 5 as these little balls possess satiating abilities to the stomach. Suspend your salivation for a couple minutes, they retain heat. Enjoy!
In the process of rising to the surface. Stirring occasionally so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
Dig in!

This experience stimulated more than just my olfactory senses, reminding me of the messy playfulness that still persists through Chinese holidays. Through these small acts of celebration, you make memories that cement more than just white flour underneath your fingernails.

Published by holidaysallyearround

For most cultures, holidays serve as the only opportunities in the year in which we come together: to reunite with faraway relatives, reconcile our past ancestors, and refill stomachs. And for most, holidays fall deep into history, myths, or grandma's fictitious tales that dictate the food boiling after a sacrificial ceremony to the decorations adorned on doors.

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